There’s no such thing as a “perfect” parent. As a qualified nutritionist, it’s clear that kids can sometimes be the most challenging group to get to eat their vegetables and fruit in particular. All you want to do is ensure your little ones grow up to be strong and healthy, feeling great from the inside out.
There are certainly some common mistakes parents make when it comes to feeding their kids, some of which may be very surprising. It’s important to realise that a key role parents play in shaping their kids’ food choices is deciding when kids eat and what they eat. Kids, on the other hand, decide whether they eat something and how much of it they actually eat. Notoriously picky, they might refuse to eat anything but cheesy pasta! It’s up to you to try different methods to show them how awesome eating a variety of foods can be.
Remembering that health in relation to food isn’t just what they eat - it’s also the mental and emotional associations they form with food. These are key in having a healthy relationship with eating. This means enjoying a balanced diet with a range of different delicious foods!
These common blunders parents make with food can be pretty easily rectified. It might take some time and a whole lot of patience, but with your guidance, eventually your kids should be able to intuitively listen to their bodies. They can learn how to self-regulate their food consumption to make them feel as good as they possibly can!
20 Too Much Sugar For Breakfast
Sugar tends to sneak it’s way into many breakfast foods, like sugary cereals or muffins. It might also appear in spreads (like some peanut butters), flavoured milk or even in the fruit juice you give your youngster. There are issues with eating too much sugar for breakfast. This includes the inevitable energy crash we all experience after eating too many quickly-absorbed carbohydrates. Sure, you’ve got a pretty good energy boost immediately after eating them, because they’re so rapidly broken down, but it also means the energy leaves just as fast, resulting in a need for a serious nap. You’ll also feel hungry pretty quickly due to not having enough protein or fibre in your meal. So fill up your kids stomachs’ with nutritious, fibre rich foods for breakfast to result in a gradual energy release and keep them fuller for longer!
19 Serving Boring Food
Kids can have super vibrant imaginations, so making meal times fun can certainly be a great way to get kids to enjoy their food more. Serve adult food but with a fun twist! This could be putting vegetable faces on foods, cutting sandwiches into fun shapes, or using colourful fruit and vegetables to eat the rainbow. Avoid making your kids’ meals separately from yours and get everyone to eat the same thing, so as not to send the message that adult food is not as enjoyable. Adults and kids alike can enjoy having a bit of fun with their food!
18 Giving Kids Food That Seems Healthy, But Isn’t
So many snack foods nowadays are sold with the premise that they are ‘healthy’. Don’t be fooled - a lot of these are highly processed, high-energy foods that provide little nutritional benefit. Sure, they might be ’99% Fat Free’, but the sugar that’s loaded into them well counteracts any positive benefits that may have. Common culprits are granola bars, fruit snacks and chips. Don’t worry too much though - some snacks are actually great, nutritious nibbles for your kids. Just make sure you read the label and know what you’re actually buying!
17 Labelling Food As "Good" and "Bad"
Ah, the age-old connotations we attach to food. Eat this salad, you’re being good today! I ate a donut, I’m being naughty. Attaching emotions to food ignores what food is really about - nourishment. All foods, be it sweet, salty, fatty, or nutrient-dense have a role in a balanced diet. As a parent, treat all these food neutrally - your child isn’t ‘better’ or ‘worse’ for eating and enjoying a particular food. By removing negative connotations from food for your kids, you can help remove that sometimes-crippling guilt that unfortunately so many people feel after enjoying foods with their friends and family.
16 Giving Up On Foods
A kid might take one look at a food and throw it across the room. Even if the kiddo tries it, and THEN throws it across the room, it’s sometimes easier (and less messy) to just give up on that food altogether. However, research shows that kids may need to be exposed to a particular food 8-15 times before they acquire a taste for it. It’s important to keep pushing some foods to ensure your little one eats a variety of foods every day. Try instigating the ‘one-bite rule’: Before they’re allowed to say no to a food, they have to try at least one bite! They can decide if they want more afterwards.
15 Using Bribery
Bribing kids to eat certain foods often seems like the easy way out of a 30 minute argument trying to get them to eat their broccoli. “Eat your vegetables, and then you can have dessert!” By offering rewards for eating foods that kids should just eat can result in them preferring the reward over the “have to eat” foods. This attaches extra connotations to how good the reward actually is, and encourages them to feel like one day they’ll be able to skip the ‘yucky’ foods and go straight to the reward foods. Ice cream for dinner just isn’t a balanced meal, even when they’re 30. Demonstrate that they need to accept vegetables as just something they need to get used to, and they aren’t entitled to a special reward for eating their meals. Keep on pushing, and act as a role model by eating your veggies too!
14 Setting A Poor Example
As a parent, you’re a role model for your child. Setting a poor example for your kids is one of the most common mistakes parents make when trying to develop their children’s eating behaviours. From the get go, kids will be influenced by their parents’ behaviours, from how they treat other people to how they eat. If you’re bingeing on sweet foods all the time, they’ll assume sweet foods are a core part of a normal diet. If you skip meals, they’ll think that’s what they should do. And if you buy into fad diets, your kids will see that a healthy and reasonable way of eating rather than simply consuming a balanced, unrestricted diet. Make sure you’re eating how you would like them to follow suit!
13 Banning Kids From The Kitchen
Understandably, parents can be afraid of letting kids into the kitchen for fear of danger. There are many sharp, hot and heavy things in the cooking area. However, involving kids in the planning, shopping and preparing of meals can help them feel like they have a responsibility in meal times, and also encourage them to try new foods. Getting them involved will also show them the importance of putting love into your food and reaping the rewards of that when the meal is ready. Allow them to contribute by giving them simple tasks and teaching them how to be safe in the kitchen. And of course, keep them supervised!
12 Hiding Treat Foods￼
The forbidden fruit! Hiding “treat” foods tends to make kids think about it and want it more than if it was simply accessible. Research shows that when kids are presented with treats, but are then restricted from eating them, they are more likely to struggle self-regulating their diets in the future. How many of us restrict ourselves from eating foods that we perceive as “naughty”, to only go crazy on them a few days later? It’s simple - restriction leads to bingeing. It’s a cycle you never want your kids to buy into, so allow them to enjoy all foods in moderation without placing too many restrictions on them. This might mean not keeping sweets in the house altogether and only buying them when you want them to be consumed.
11 Ignoring Hunger Cues
On the same note as setting structured meal times, what do you do if your child insists they’re still hungry between a meal and a snack or another meal? “Wait for dinner”, I hear my dad say. But similarly to telling them to clean their plate when they’ve said they’re full, telling them to ignore their body when it says it’s hungry can be just as detrimental to their ability to self-regulate their food consumption as they get older. If dinner is a while away, let them have a small snack, and enable them to learn how to listen intuitively to their body’s hunger cues.
10 Allowing Distractions At Meal Time
Whilst giving your kiddo their favourite toy to keep them pacified at the dinner table might help keep the peace, distractions at meal time can prevent kids from eating mindfully, appreciating their food, and listening to their hunger signals. It’s probably fine if Mr Fluffy sits quietly, but if the the table turns into a toy car racetrack it can certainly take away from the experience of eating. The same thing goes for watching television - the more distracted you are, the more likely you are to overeat. Try to keep your kids focused on their food where possible.
9 Setting The Wrong Goals
Food is obviously such an important part of people’s lives. Of course, the main goal of eating is to fuel your body, nourish yourself and feel awesome (both physically and mentally). Understanding and setting these goals can sometimes become a bit convoluted when external factors like body image and social perceptions come into play. Feeding kids with a goal to ‘improve’ their physical appearance is an example of a goal that is probably misplaced, particularly when it comes to kids. Changing this goal to ‘eat well to feel great’ may be a better direction to guide your kids eating habits in. Not to mention, a healthy physique will follow suit if you’re eating a well-balanced diet.
8 Forcing A Child To Finish Their Meal
“You haven’t eaten enough. Finish your plate!” “There are children starving in other countries!” Common phrases at the dinner table. We know they’re said with good intentions, but forcing your kids to eat more than they want teaches them to ignore when their body is telling them that they’re full. It also indicates to them that an empty plate is a better signal of when they’re finished eating than what they are feeling physically. This can lead directly to overeating in their future, particularly in a world where portion sizes are growing larger. Let them know that they need to eat enough to carry them through to the next structured meal or snack and leave them to their own mechanisms (mistakes will probably need to be made!).
7 A Lack Of Variety
Letting your kid choose the same food every time means they’re going to miss out on valuable nutrients provided by a range of different foods every day. Although if you’ve got a picky eater that has finally decided they like carrots, but only carrots, it can be intimidating to suggest any other vegetables or fruits in fears that they might just go back to cheesy pasta forever. Make sure you’ve always got the options there for them to choose, and try to work with them to see what foods they might find interesting. Explain how important it is to eat the rainbow and make snack times fun with cutting foods into funky shapes to help nudge them along.
6 Eating Meals Alone
It’s easy to get in a habit of not eating meals as a family when everyone’s life is hustle bustle. One kid has dance practice, your partner’s going to be home late from work, the baby’s crying, another kid is super hangry and there’s just not enough time to all sit down together as a family every night. While this is completely fine on occasion, it’s important to eat together as often as possible - not only is it invaluable family bonding time, it reiterates how eating and enjoying food is just as much a social occasion than it is just fuelling your body.
5 Not Setting Structured Meal Times
Eating three main meals a day is important. So is setting general times to eat them! Having structured meal times for breakfast, lunch and dinner can help regulate when your kids feel hungry by allowing them to grow accustomed to eating at specific times each day. For example, you might have breakfast ready right before your kid leaves for school, then they’ll have time for a snack at recess, a lunch time that is set by the school, another snack when they gets home, dinner within a couple hours of that and then perhaps another snack sometime after dinner if necessary. When these fall out of whack (which they do often!), your kid will probably feel hungry at those times and be able to differentiate between actual hunger and just being bored.
4 Fear Of Mess
Many parents cringe at the thought of a floor covered in mashed pumpkin and peas. Toddlers are notoriously messy eaters as they begin to self feed. However, the yogurt in their hair and the applesauce on the floor is actually a good thing. Messy eating is actually a critical learning experience for your bub! It provides important sensory experiences, leading to a greater acceptance and understanding of different foods and textures. Self feeding helps to develop fine motor skills like picking up food and holding cutlery. Prepare your feeding area with towels and placemats and make sure the floor is easy to clean after. And get the camera ready for some super cute and hilarious snaps!
3 Cooking Foods That Even The Parents Wouldn’t Like
This one might appear obvious, but parents often try to present foods that they feel their children ‘should’ be eating, like plain steamed brussels sprouts and broccoli. Cook what you enjoy eating, and your kids will see that you like it and join in! This might mean that instead of blanched vegetables, you sauté them in some butter, or bake them with pasta. Instead of having vegetables as a side dish that you can take or leave, try incorporating them into the core part of the meal. It’s another opportunity to enjoy food as a family by sharing in the delicious experience.
2 Comparing One Kid To Another
“Your sibling is eating it, why aren't you?”
Comparing one child to another, be it a brother, sister, cousin or friend, can make your little one feel inferior, or like they aren’t as good an eater as the kid you’re comparing them to. Picky eating is a normal stage of development that they will grow out of eventually. Let them know it’s okay to not like a food, but that doesn’t mean stop trying it. Show them you’re confident in their abilities to choose what they want to eat and reassure them that they can and will probably like the food in their own time.
1 Worrying Too Much
Finally, remember to relax! Parenting comes with many stresses - try not to worry too much about your kids eating. Kids are great at listening to their bodies, and are far more intuitive than one may think. Kids can work out what foods make them feel good from the inside out. Allow them to learn from their mistakes, be that eating too much sugar and getting a belly ache or not eating enough at one meal so feeling hungry too soon before the next. It will all sort itself out, so remember to enjoy the special food moments you share with your little ones.